Long distance champions


How virtual project management was the answer for long-distance clients to turn a Victorian vicarage into a modern masterpiece


When the major renovation of Melinda and Chris Swann’s Victorian vicarage near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire began, the couple were almost 7,000 miles away in Singapore.

Chris, 62, a director in the oil and gas industry, was posted overseas to the Far East, so Melinda, 59, managed the first nine months of the build from the end of a phone and laptop, holding virtual meetings with her architect, Stuart Hall, and builder, Samir ‘Sammy’ Ene, to ensure that progress was being made.

“We used Facetime, email and Dropbox to share photos,” Melinda says. “I popped back every six weeks for the bigger decisions, and returned to the UK three months before the project’s completion, when we stayed in London before moving in.”

Stuart and Sammy agree that this remote way of working was successful because Melinda, a volunteer for The National Trust and the Sue Ryder palliative care charity, was very proactive and directed all the project management and interior design herself, although she doesn’t have formal training.

“Melinda is an excellent client, because she knows how to make decisions, and sticks to them,” says Stuart, a co-founder of Colony Architects, a practice which is based in Reading and Guildford. “We’ve always been keen on collaborative working anyway,” he adds. “We started working individually, then we started meeting up in a shared office space, but we are all comfortable working remotely with each other.”

He conducted site meetings by doing a walkaround video, which Melinda could watch. If there was a question which needed an immediate answer, they could speak on the telephone.

For instance, when a major query popped up about the basement – the plan was to retain a vaulted ceiling, but the builders discovered that it was actually made of plasterboard – and it needed a fairly prompt response, Melinda and Stuart shared a Skype call. “That time, she turned the camera around to show me where she was,” he says. “It was a typical Maldives scene; azure water, white sands, and she told me, ‘this is my office today!’”

Builder Sammy, whose company SDA Build typically works on high-end renovation projects in south west London, also found Melinda’s clear focus a great help. “To keep things on track, the main thing is to be focused before you start the job, and know exactly what you want to achieve,” he says.

His advice to other self-builders and renovators is not to start tweaking plans too much once the actual build process is underway. Also, he stresses that you should set aside a sensible contingency fund: “Any work on a period house will cost more than a standard build because of the cost of specialist materials and replacements – such as chimney pots and bricks – which will need to match the originals in order to meet conservation guidelines.”


At £2m, for the full renovation of the 540 m2 house (incorporating the former school house) and annex, The Old Vicarage’s budget was generous. However, there were some practical issues to overcome.

Sammy says that because most of his projects are usually in London, his major challenge was to work out the logistics of remote working and establish trusting relationships with local building merchants and suppliers. “I’m very grateful to D.J. Giles, the salvage and reclamation company we found in nearby Stokenchurch,” he says. “They were so helpful when it came to finding things like chimney pots and roof tiles, which we would have found really difficult to source otherwise.”

Although The Old Vicarage is not listed, its status as an excellent example of mid-Victorian ecclesiastical architecture brought its own challenges for Melinda and Chris. “We used our own moral compass with regards to maintaining likeness and replacing like for like,” says Melinda. There were also various tree preservation orders in the grounds to adhere to, plus the property stands in the picturesque hamlet of Highmoor Cross, in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB); any alterations were expected to be sympathetic to the surroundings.

The house was built between 1857 and 1859 as the vicarage for nearby St Paul’s church, with distinctive brick and flint elevations under a slate tile roof. Strong ecclesiastical influences remain, including gothic arches, leaded and stained glass windows, and the sign of the cross decorating some doors and joinery.

A small village school was added to the vicarage in the 19th century, then in time, the school became part of the house. Melinda and Chris bought the property in 2015 and spent some months working on their ideas before the build began.

The strong and good-humoured connection between client, architect and builder helped the project to run exactly (literally to the day) to schedule, taking a full year to complete. Melinda had worked with Sammy before, on the renovation of a property in London, but this was her first project with Stuart: “I originally looked at two architects but went with the younger, open-minded ‘can do’ attitude of Stuart.” She says working with him and SDA was “a winning combination.”


Their task involved the complete remodelling of the existing vicarage, the adjoining schoolhouse and the guest house outbuilding. The main house now has a sitting room, dining room, TV room, kitchen and breakfast room, wine cellar, boot room, and laundry room. Sammy says that it required skill, patience and research to seamlessly match up the ‘school’ part of the property with the principal house, as there were discrepancies in the level of finish between the two.

To aid this, he managed to source some photographs of cottages built by the same original builder of the vicarage, which helped him to establish key design details, such as the shape and style of the chimney pots – a detail he is especially proud of.

Outside in the 1.7 acres of garden, there is a heated swimming pool, also freshly renovated by Sammy and his team; the Swanns generously allowed the builders to use the pool when they had finished work for the day. “They also provided space on the top floor of the house with a television and PlayStation for the lads, some of whom stayed in the house for the project as Melinda and Chris were away,” says Sammy. “The younger ones loved it in Henleyon- Thames, and enjoyed going around the countryside on their motorbikes.”

Contrary to the usual renovation advice of starting at the top of a house by securing the roof and working downwards, the builders started first in the coach house, then moved on to digging out the basement. “It was more of a ‘bottom-up’ approach,” says Melinda. “But this was only possible because there was no one living on the property, besides the builders.”

Melinda was keen to ensure everyone felt at ease and involved, especially because of the scale of the work involved. “It was a huge, huge project,” she says. “The house was so higgledypiggledy with twists and turns everywhere and it was cold and draughty, just like a church hall really. None of the buildings had been touched for some time and there was a mish-mash of copper pipes everywhere and there were twin staircases – the vicars’ and the maids’.”


There were two major structural challenges: removing the two individual staircases to be replaced by one central sweeping spiral staircase, which shows off stunning leaded glass windows and allows more light into the entrance hall, and joining the old school with the vicarage. The two were originally connected by means of a “tight little corridor” says Melinda, which was removed and replaced with boxed glass to allow the “garden in” as well as flood the glazed link with light.

She explains that the house was sold as having eight bedrooms, but she wanted every bedroom to be ensuite. So, some of the bedrooms were lost, and a couple of rooms repurposed as his and her separate dressing rooms off the main bedroom’s ensuite.

“And the kitchen was moved from the ‘maids’ side of the house, to become more central and therefore the heart of the home,” adds Melinda. In addition, the cellar was extended and waterproofed and now houses a wine cellar for Chris, a plant room, and the laundry room.


A major consideration for what had been a draughty old house was good insulation to improve energy efficiency to super-high standards – now the insides of all the exterior walls are lined with 5 cm of ThermoLite (a synthetic insulation material). The living spaces and pool are heated by way of air-source heat pumps, with underfloor heating throughout the house, all the windows have been replaced with like-for-like double-glazed units, and woodburning stoves have been installed into all the original fireplaces.

Melinda calls her visual style ‘traditional with a twist.’ She focused on emphasising classic features without turning her new home into a period pastiche and found inspiration by reading every decorating magazine she could get her hands on, attending design fairs, and visiting designers and makers at the Design Centre Chelsea Harbour in Lots Road, Fulham, west London for thoughts and ideas. Engaging a lighting designer from John Cullen Lighting, and having the confidence to employ bold pattern has helped to balance out light and shade and bring character and warmth to the rooms.

As always, her trusty builder and architect supported her in this vision. “For example, I wished to use a fabulous ‘Timorous Beasties’ wallpaper in the main bedroom, on a wall facing the bed,” she explains. “However, with a window in that wall, the wastage would have been costly. So instead, I asked the builders to create two panels of wallpaper on either side of the window. It looks amazing!”

The delight in Melinda’s voice is clear. She says that her proudest achievement is that her home makes her family happy – “and we are proud of what we’ve done to it.” She is especially pleased with the entrance hall and its new staircase, the glassed-in passage link, the welcoming kitchen and the elegant double aspect dining room, with its working shutters and a marble fireplace surround.

Would she consider undertaking another major renovation project? She laughs and says she’s already working on the next; her daughter’s house in Fulham, west London, using the same architect and build team.

It’s ironic that a project so steeped in history has been such a catalyst for setting in place such innovative methods of project management for all concerned. “We’ve really embraced remote working now, after our experience with Melinda’s project,” says architect Stuart Hall, who says the practice now takes videos of sites and asks clients to supply videos of their homes and ideas in return. “It’s helpful for looking back as well. I can review the videos that we took, rather than reading emails or whatever, and I can see so much of the progress.”